Leadership Spotlight: Setting and Realizing a Vision Is Hard, Not Impossible

This guest post is written by Tim Rahschulte, Ph.D, Chief Executive Officer, Professional Development Academy, in partnership with the NACo High Performance Leadership Academy as part of MACo’s Spotlight on Leadership series.

It was mentioned in the previous rule in this article series that if you always do what you’ve always done,you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten. This is a losing proposition because everyone and every organization is looking to get better.When it comes to needing to get better, whether that need is due to advancements in technology, global market pressures, fluctuating economies, customer demands, shifts in employee demographics,or other variables, your need to change is inevitable. And if you’ve ever tried to bring about change in anything, you know it’s hard. The Harvard Business School professor and guru of organizational-change management John Kotter said, “Guiding change may be the ultimate test of a leader.”

“Change is hard because, like water and electricity, people follow the path of least resistance.” – Marc Varner, CISO, YUM! Brands

That’s true.

Over the years, dozens of seasoned executives and effective change agents have been asked why change is so hard. A great explanation came from Marc Varner, the global chief information security officer at YUM! Brands. He said, “Change is hard because, like water and electricity, people follow the path of least resistance.” People like comfort. They like predictability. They like to know what’s going on and what’s going to happen. This, in part, is what separates great leaders from everyone else. The best leaders are those who know that greatness isn’t found along the path of least resistance but in their ability to cast a compelling vision of a future state and help others navigate there together. This is the opposite of least resistance. It’s the most difficult. It’s the ultimate test of a leader.

While change is hard, it’s important to know that change is not impossible. Here’s how you can increase your likelihood of success with the change endeavors necessary to realize your envisioned future state:

  • Spend time among those you’re asking to change to help write the compelling vision and reason for the change.
  • Gain the support of upper, lower, and lateral managers—you’re going to need it.
  • Keep the big vision always in mind but proceed with small, incremental steps toward your goal.
  • Aim for early wins and continual wins along the journey.
  • Broadcast those wins in celebratory fashion to build momentum over time.

John Kotter and others have found that when these efforts are implemented effectively, they dramatically increase the probability of you and your team successfully overcoming the challenges of change and realizing envisioned future-state goals.

Before leaving this rule, let me offer a bit more about the importance of communication. The communication aspects of bringing about change and realizing a big vision will seem overwhelming. As the leader, you’ll often wonder why you need to keep explaining the vision and need for the change over and over, again. The answer to that question is that people affected by the change won’t embrace the rationale and adopt the change at the same time or for the same reason. You’ll have early adopters, and you’ll have laggards, and you’ll likely have some who will never adopt the change at all. John Marcante, the chief information officer at Vanguard, said, “You always have to communicate and reiterate—many more times than you would think is necessary.” When you think you have communicated to the point where you can’t possibly have to say it again, communicate it at least two more times, and then you’re likely almost to the point where people understand the need for the change and can communicate it themselves to others.

Realizing your vision is grounded in effective communication. It needs to be aspiring, inspiring, and motivating. In short, your communication needs to be compelling, consistent, and always focused on bringing about increased clarity, confidence, and community. And you’ll need to communicate the vision of the future, how you’re going to get there, and the importance of each person in realizing that future state often. Without effective communication and the efforts noted above, your chances to realize your vision will be derailed by resistance. This blueprint illustrates and highlights the difficulty of leading change and yet the possibility of successfully doing so.


Interested in learning more about leadership tools and skills?

The NACo High Performance Leadership Academy is an innovative, completely online 12-week program created to equip frontline county government professionals with practical leadership skills to deliver results for counties and communities.

With a robust curriculum developed by the Professional Development Academy in partnership with Fortune 1000 executives, public sector leaders, world-renowned academics and thought leaders, including General Colin Powell and Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, HPLA was designed specifically for the unique challenges and opportunities of serving in county government.

Contact Luke Afeman with questions or to register today!

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